Imagine buying a horse farm as an investment. The thought is enough to send any experienced barn manager into fits of laughter. After all, running a stable is hardly the fast track to landing big returns on your dollar. But in 1975, that’s exactly what a trust fund did when it purchased Table Mountain Ranch in Golden, Colo. And today, a quarter of a century later, that investment is still going strong.
To be perfectly honest, the farm itself wasn’t the focus of the buy. It was part of a deal that focused on North Table Mountain, a 1,000-acre chunk of open land that sits behind the equestrian facility. Speculation has it that the trust intended to turn a tidy profit by selling the mesa off to developers. Instead, after highly publicized protests by local residents, the mesa was sold to Jefferson County Open Space, a group that allows multi-use recreation on its properties, but not development—ever.
The Decision Maker
So the trust made its profit off the mesa. But it never sold the farm. And, if manager Connie Kimbrel has her way, it never will. Kimbrel has been with the barn since 1973, when she signed on as a boarder. By 1983, she was working as the farm’s bookkeeper. Three years later, she took over as manager.
While it might sound cushy to run a farm owned by a trust, you’ll find no sterling silver manure forks or gilt-edged waterers on this property. Though Kimbr el earns a salary, she gets no allowance from the trust for her operating expenses and has to keep finances in line on her own. Not that it was always that way, she admits. “In the old days, before I was manager, they were actually in the hole about $40,000 per year,” she explains. “In those days, the trust subsidized the farm, usually to help pay property taxes. But I’ve done it on my own for the past five years without so much as an advance. And we’re now operating at a very slight profit.”
The key, says Kimbrel, is to “run the place like it’s my own. I make all the decisions. I do all the billing, the taxes, the collecting. I just send a profit and loss report to the trust’s accountant every year. And as long as I hold my own, I have no problems.”
Change for the Better
Kimbrel has, in fact, managed to do more than simply hold her own. By carefully handling finances—and not overextending her funds—she’s managed to not only keep up with maintenance, but has made improvements to the facility as well. She admits, though, that she doesn’t create a detailed budget anymore.
“I’ve been here so long that I’ve developed a good feel for what needs to be done and when,” she says. “So, for instance, if I know that we need to completely redo the footing in the indoor one year, then I know not to do something else expensive that year.”
If unorthodox, her mental budgeting tactics have worked. Through the years, she’s found enough money in the profits to fund numerous renovations. For example, she says, “We’ve improved on equipment to be more efficient, we’ve added a set of outdoor pens, we’ve changed the grounds a little to create more turnout areas, we’ve added one dressage arena and improved the other one.”
Specifically, Kimbrel made it a top priority to give pastured horses automatic waterers with built-in thermostats. “Before that, they had water troughs with heaters. We were having to break ice two to three times a day in the winter, and cleaning the troughs took so much time—the change cut labor tremendously.”
Kimbrel also installed a bathroom in the barn—a much-appreciated convenience for boarders and employees alike, who formerly had to run to the indoor arena for a restroom. A new maintenance garage has also upped the convenience and efficiency levels. “Our maintenance man used to have to work on everything out in the weather, with just a closet for his tools,” says Kimbrel. “Now he has a garage with a heater, and it’s big enough that he can work on our Cushman carts inside.”
What’s Under Foot
One of the most significant improvements for riders (and horses) has been Kimbrel’s work on arena footing. The previous farm manager actually had the facility’s second dressage arena built. But, says Kimbrel, “It didn’t work.”
When Kimbrel took over, she did her own research and mixed in her personal experience with horses. (And she has plenty of that, including being an equine industry volunteer lobbyist, a Colorado Horse Council board member, the Colorado and Jefferson County horse person of the year and the American Horse Council Van Ness Award winner.) A drainage problem in the arena was soon uncovered—literally: As the footing was scraped back, a non-draining clay base was discovered. “We laid an asphalt base with a 2 percent crown, then topped it with the best sand we could find,” she says. Today, Kimbrel adds J-Tire, a shredded rubber additive that helps retain moisture while adding cushion. “It’s wonderful,” she says. “You can ride in it five minutes after the rain stops, and there are no puddles.”
Kimbrel uses the sand-rubber mix in both dressage arenas and the indoor arena. “Then, after stripping the indoor, we put the used footing on our quarter-mile galloping track. The only place we don’t use the J-Tire is in our hunter ring, which has always remained in good condition with just clean-washed sand.”
Of course, it takes more than good footing and automatic waterers to keep a barn in business. As Kimbrel realizes, you have to please your customers, too. “We have virtually no turnover,” she says. “In fact, we have a waiting list. About the only time we lose someone is if they move out of the area or they buy their own horse property.”
Why the loyalty? Along with the facility’s expansive amenities (see box), Kimbrel considers security a top selling point. To start with, she notes, “One of the crew lives in an apartment above the barn and can see every stall. And I live on the property, too.”
In addition, a wrought-iron gate blocking access to the drive is locked every night, bridging the gap between barbed-wire-topped chain-link fences that run along each side of the facility’s road-facing borders. “At night, we also drive around the farm to check the outside horses, and we walk through the barn to check on the horses and then lock up,” she says. “I think that’s a real comfort for all the customers.”
Kimbrel notes that staffing ranks as the most difficult aspect of running the farm, a problem at least partly caused by Colorado’s low unemployment rate. “I used to place an ad and get 100 calls and 50 people coming in,” she recalls. “Now I place an ad and might get a couple calls a day, and sometimes no one will come in.”
To employ people in what she acknowledges is a “thankless, monotonous, dirty, smelly job,” she says, “you have to make up for it in other areas.” Along with increasing wages to stay competitive with the local job market, she targets people who love the outdoors and are head-over-heels in love with horses. “Then I do the best job I can to keep them happy. We give hospitalization coverage, paid vacations, six days sick leave per year and a Christmas bonus. I bake a cake from scratch for each birthday and do a birthday lunch for every employee. And I constantly thank them for what they do.”
As a unique fringe benefit, Kimbrel reserves one pasture for employee horses. “Not only does having a horse here help keep the employees happy, but it also makes them more attuned to the customers’ concerns,” she explains. As if to prove the effectiveness of such methods, she adds, “And right now, I have a wonderful staff—seven full-time and four part-time employees. They try hard to make the customers feel that their concerns are very important—even if they’re actually pretty minute.”
Kimbrel admits that changes in her management style have also contributed to high morale on the farm. “I realize now that you can’t make 100 percent of the people happy 100 percent of the time, so I don’t let things bother me. I just let them roll off,” she says. “I’ve also become more attuned to and understanding of employees and customers. And I’ve learned to deal with it when I want to do a project but don’t have the money for it. In general, I’ve relaxed a lot, and I think that’s made it a better atmosphere for the people who are here.”
No Pantyhose, Please
Overall, Kimbrel has found much to love about managing a farm. “Horse people are loving, warm and kind—and they’re very dedicated people,” she says. “Plus, at this job I’m never bored because I don’t do the same thing every day. I might work on the barn crew, fix a toilet, hop on a tractor and mow, clean the pool, you name it. And I don’t have to wear pantyhose!
“I love the horses,” she says. “And I feel there is such value in this industry, and it needs to be fought for. The horse plays a huge role in the community and with youth. I care about it, and that’s why I’m here.”
She plans to stay put, too, and is already planning more renovations. Her pipe dream is to build an indoor dressage arena—but she doesn’t expect to come up with the estimated $180,000 needed for that project any time soon. She does plan to construct a fully-enclosed fence on the property’s east side where an Open Space road to the mesa will soon go in. “I think I’ll have to do that for the safety of the horses and riders,” she says. “And, in the end, that’s what I’m most concerned with—keeping the customers happy and the horses safe and healthy.”